Localizing, globalizing…who owns the means of production?

A view of Earth with blue light networks circling it

One thing I thought about here: making sure you have "alternate text" for the image is helpful for a wide range of people with impaired vision.

In my prior day job working for a small K–12 textbook publisher, I was fortunate to glimpse a little bit of the localization process with printed materials for which the company was trying to gain an international market. At a meeting with the sales staff for the east and southeast Asian region, who traveled very long distances to illuminate us about their market, I learned to look at our materials a little differently. It was quite an experience.

In just one example, the textbooks they wished to offer in their schools contained pictures of boys and girls, age-matched to the level of the program, with a precisely calculated range of diversity (meaning, racial and gender proportions in the United States—all textbook publishers have very precise ways to log and count this). We sat down in a conference room to go over the program. One of the sales representatives looked at every single girl’s photo to determine whether any skirts were too short; we asked whether those photos of girls in pants were okay, and she thought that generally the schools that would use our materials would be okay with that. We would not likely gain entry anyway into schools with strict religious affiliation (within that region, Islam). We asked whether the U.S. diversity of race in these images would be acceptable, and she thought it would. In the end, we changed only one image in one book to better fit within the boundaries of that market.

That experience was brought to my mind when I was reading about making open educational resources more accessible and global. The issue of accessibility to me is not really a question: if you want to reach as many people as you can, pay attention to whether they can access what you have to say in different ways: through text-to-speech applications, for instance, or through the ability to magnify your text easily. However, trying to be too “universal” in your approach often ends up being vague; the best writing (and teaching) comes from the depth of detail. From a writer’s perspective, you want to clearly define your audience, your reader/user, and address particularly their possible context and needs. 

McDonald's menu choices in IndiaWhen I searched for “globalization” and “localization,” I found a variety of marketing-related agencies, conferences, and information about localizing one’s content (translating, too). Small agencies seem to be springing up to help countries penetrate a market that’s foreign to them. This isn’t a new impulse. Certainly McDonald’s in India has a different set of menu items than does McDonald’s in Lancaster, Ohio. I looked at past conference programs for the Localization World conferences and saw a lot of process-based sessions (e.g., so different departments of your company aren’t translating and retranslating the same materials), adding translated metadata, “best practices” in the field, crowdsourcing across the globe, international domain names introduction, localizing legal agreements, translation management systems (TMSs), and so on. Clearly there is an ongoing conversation in the for-profit world.

But when I added “OER” to my search, because these seem to me by definition not-for-profit, I found that last year was the “1st International Symposium on Open Educational Resources: Issues for Globalization and Localization” held at Utah State University. (The conference proceedings may be found here.) The editorial opening the proceedings asks

How can we prevent neo-colonization and one-way flow of content based on the massive amount of content published by richer nations? How do we promote worldview and exchange if we do not build systems and capacity so that minority groups effectively contribute? (p. 4)

In my last post I talked about why students using Wikipedia is potentially a good thing that teaches them intellectual skills they need to discern a text’s point of view, etc. A similar logic applies here. It seems to me that the localization and globalization aspect of OER reuse isn’t up to me if I’ve created some resource for my own particular audience. That seems to be up to the colleague who wishes to use it in her context; that’s part of her reimagining what I’ve done. Having said that, however, the question of who in the world actually has the ability (economic, leisure, education, access to tools and electricity) to contribute OERs is a good one. The term “exchange” means more like back-and-forth, so perhaps the question of globalization and localization comes down, like most things, to economics and who owns the means of production.

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Open educational resources, editing, and economics

This graphic was created by my mom, who runs Sue-perGraphics.com

It’s impossible to disagree with the principle of, as Ilkka Tuomi says in Open Educational Resources: What they are and why do they matter“a world where teachers and learners have free access to high-quality educational resources, independent of their location. Who wouldn’t want that? And what makes sense to me in the Cape Town declaration is the idea that if the public is paying for educational resources, the public should have free access, and “the public” includes the students using them. Last semester I taught some freshman composition courses, and my students at the community college paid more than $150 for the books for the course! For a writing course! The initiative from Cable Green and Washington State makes good sense for that reason alone. At the same time, however, that initiative is funded by a private foundation, Gates, which of course has its own agenda for educational change and certainly won’t keep underwriting this kind of development for every state in the union. In addition, it’s finding some challenges in the process (see thet commentary in the linked article about Washington State).

I want to be selfish for a minute, though, and figure out what all that means for me, given all the hats I wear. For instance, one of my larger clients is an academic journal publisher, for whom I edit papers appearing in seven different journals. I copyedit for the researchers and statisticians, making stylistic choices to adhere to the journal’s formal tone as well as ensuring things like all the citations in the text have sources listed in the References list. I also see journals, whether open or not, that are not edited in this way, and my eye immediately goes to the typos and infelicitous uses of language, errors, and usage problems. Likewise, when practitioners promote their theories on their blogs in order to foment that public discussion, I’m intrigued and interested in the results—while at the same time, I cringe at the run-on sentences, comma splices, typos, poor organization, unclear references, incorrect use of words like “comprise,” and so on. (I also cringe at these in the materials generated by my stepdaughters’ teachers.)

Definitely, my eye is more finely tuned than a normal person’s to grammatical nuances. But language primarily communicates, and poor language usage means that a reader is not receiving the clear communication she wants. Frankly, not all academics or teachers are, in fact, writers. Is there a place in open educational resources for qualified professional editing? Or do I need a new job?

This question becomes even larger: not everyone who knows about a subject is an expert in organizing content so that learners have the best experience they can, especially younger learners. Not everyone understands children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. That’s why K-12 teachers are required to attend hours and hours of professional training every year in order to remain a teacher and renew their licenses: in theory, at least, it helps them keep up with research in these subjects. That’s also why textbook publishers often pay for their editors to attend graduate school for MA degrees in education. My other clients are mostly educational publishers who are worried about the death of publishing. Sure, textbooks are expensive. Too expensive. But not everyone understands the enormous work that goes into creating them. Just as one example, at the K-12 level in the United States, each state has its own set of learning standards for, say, social studies. Maybe “history” in the generic sense doesn’t change…but what each state deems important makes it change, at least for the publishing industry. My old day job used to be keeping up with these developments in state legislatures and education departments, and publishers scramble to keep recreating textbooks when states change their minds about whether Thomas Jefferson is a crucial part of the U.S. History curriculum or not.

Perhaps it’s just that I don’t understand the economics of open source. How can I create “content” to share freely with the world when I need to be paid, somehow, in order to keep the electricity on?

One of the three strategies of the Cape Town Declaration includes the call for “educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly. These open educational resources should be freely shared through open licences which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone.”  Fulfilling this and other strategies “will make it possible to redirect funds from expensive textbooks towards better learning.” I’m not seeing the step-by-step, flowchart kind of logic that shows this kind of business model, and I hope that my next course in the University of Manitoba Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, Open Educational Resources, gives me some ideas about how this can actually work in the context of U.S. elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education. The principles of open access to information and knowledge appeal to me greatly, especially as someone who simply loves to learn; I look forward to learning about some practical examples that show how it can work.

AdjuncTechnology, or why I can’t figure out Blackboard

It’s ironic, really. Enrolled in the Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, participating (or trying to) in MOOCs, teaching myself skills in WordPress and other tools…I certainly appear to be on top of all things ed-techie.

So when I started teaching again this fall as an adjunct instructor in English, hired about one week before classes began, I thought of the opportunities to work with students that technology gives us that I did not have 15 years ago, the last time I taught freshman composition courses. Would I have them each keep a blog? A class wiki? How could we do email and online conferences? Handed the books I was required to use and the essay rubrics I had to teach to, I was informed that the school also used Blackboard to communicate with students.

Wow, my first experience with a traditional learning management system! After all the LMS-bashing I’ve heard from my compatriots in MOOCs and read online, I looked forward to contributing a bash or two.

But between putting in the enormous amount of time dealing with the required texts and rubrics, the sheer volume of written work, and managing a full-time business on top of it…figuring out Blackboard hasn’t taken priority. As an adjunct, I am paid only for the hours I’m actually in the classroom—three per class—which works out to about $7 an hour when I account for the class preparation and grading and student meetings outside of class and supplementing the standard texts with materials that will actually help students write their required research papers. I simply can’t afford more time, which would be deducting from the time I spend writing and editing—what actually keeps me financially afloat. Forcing myself to limit the hours I spend on this teaching hobby sets up a choice between learning Blackboard or spending time with a student struggling with an essay. Of course the real-live person in need is going to win.

Considering that there are about eight full-time faculty and about 80 adjunct instructors in English, is it any wonder that the syllabus and texts I was given to work with look suspiciously like the ones I had 15 years ago? My students say they have not been using Blackboard because none of their instructors do, and I suspect that other departments have the same skewed faculty lineup. For an open enrollment community college, which has an equal mix of students planning to transfer for a four-year degree and students planning to earn their HVAC or culinary certificate, that skew is not surprising. This college is the only affordable option, and to keep it affordable means relying on part-time instructors who don’t get paid very much.

As I think more about it, the debates about doing away with traditional textbooks (my students claim that their rhetoric/grammar cost $78! $78?) could have an unintended consequence for adjunct faculty. If I had to find my own resources, gather them in the LMS, etc., how much more of my time would part-time teaching take up? And then how much more time to be innovative by crafting blog-based assignments and class wikis? I’m frustrated with forced choice I had to make, so frustrated that I’m not going back. (Yes, I know; in theory, the planning/supplementing time would decrease next semester because I’ve already got materials in place and my syllabus planned out…but I’m just not that type of teacher. I’ve always got to remake things so they have a chance to work better.)

We just had a big union fight here in Ohio (and our side won!) so that (full-time) public employees have the right to bargain collectively for their working conditions and benefits. I’m lucky I can walk away from part-time teaching because I have a good income in other ways; some of the adjuncts who are just out of grad school aren’t so blessed (I remember those days). I keep thinking about the loss to students, though, of teachers who have time not only to figure out Blackboard or any LMS but also go beyond that to engage students with new ways of communicating that are authentic and have the potential of a readership wider than just their freshman comp classroom and instructor. I’m jealous and sad I don’t get to be one of those teachers.

Mobile Learning ML11: Weeks 4-5

Educational Publishing Must Change 

Even if you aren’t in the business of producing content that will be delivered to K-12 classrooms, you know intuitively that 20-pound textbooks are a vanishing breed of instructional materials in the United States.

If you’re in educational publishing here, however, you are doing everything you can to delay the funeral, including packaging those textbooks with “digital resources” that augment what’s in that big book and providing online games and smartboard accessories. You are highlighting studies of the “digital divide” to show that books are more accessible than computers for swaths of students, especially those who are disadvantaged in other ways. If you’re smart, your sales force is well-versed in their territories’ computer usage and ownership statistics, both in schools and in communities they service.

And there are some quite legitimate reasons that online resources would leave some students out of the learning process, a condition that you can’t accept if you’re a firm believer in the value of public education for all in a democracy, as I am.

All of that has been and continues to be debated in blogs and commentary online and in the administrations of school districts across the country. Here I want to provide a little insight into publishing itself, specifically from the point of view of product development, i.e., textbook development and creation.

The flip side to outward-facing sales are internal processes and procedures. I’ve written elsewhere about how textbooks are generally developed. I want to think a bit here about what an embrace of elearning and mlearning could mean for the day-to-day operations of a textbook company or a development house. For instance, I’ve worked, both as a full-time employee and as a contract or freelance worker, for educational publishers in the K–12 market, creating textbooks as well as ancillary materials.

I’ll lay out a situation that I think will highlight what has to change: Let’s say I’m creating a workbook to go along with a science textbook, and that workbook focuses on what you need to know because you live in a particular state (say, for instance, Ohio). The Educational Publisher (EP) wants to create that workbook as an ancillary to its General Science textbook so that its more competitive in the Ohio market, and as the editor I create the content. A decade ago, this is what I would have to do for the project:

  1. Identify all the relevant state standards for that grade’s workbook
  2. Plan out how to incorporate all the relevant state standards in the 6o pages the publisher has planned for
  3. Make sure each lesson complements and augments the relevant part(s) of the student edition textbook
  4. Write and edit the readings and activities (e.g., short answer response) to appear on specific pages (or hire a freelancer to do so)
  5. Identify and/or describe any art or illustration to go on that page with the reading and activity

In a completely print-based textbook context, five general realms of activity will reliably get you an Ohio Workbook to accompany your General Science textbook. (After this comes the page production process that’s standard to any publisher: proof cycles, editing, and any permissions you need for art or content;  I’m just focusing on basic content creation here.)

Fast-forward to now. What would change about this process in a full elearning environment? Leaving aside IT-related matters such as device compatibility, operating systems, and so on (i.e., the really technical stuff), I would still have to do the above, but I would also need to add at least some of the following activities (in no particular order):

  1. Plan and/or produce and/or find related video content, which requires me to think about sound and movement
  2. Plan and produce audio content
  3. Evaluate all text for its fit on a variety of screens, which requires me to adapt some of my writing skills to shorter lengths
  4. Plan and create interactive activities in which students would have immediate feedback on their efforts, which requires that I think about the limits of what students could do (such as not writing essays because they would not get immediate feedback)
  5. Plan and create activities that result in a student-generated product that a student would submit to a teacher for feedback or assessment
  6. Plan and create activities that allow students to work together using their devices, which requires me to have more understanding about what would work in a classroom environment as well as about social media tools
  7. Plan and create activities that would work even without an Internet connection
  8. Plan and create activities that could potentially be used as a whole-class experience via Smartboard technology, if a teacher wishes to use an eworkbook activity in that way
  9. Find and evaluate other web-based resources to provide to students and teachers in links or through portals
  10. Create motivational games/experiences that reward students for going through the activities
  11. Create experiences/activities linked to the student’s location in a particular place (for instance, if the student is in southeastern Ohio, a link or some content about the formation of the Appalachian Mountains)

(These are the examples I could think of—I wonder what younger, more technology-savvy folks would add?) With digital products, too, teachers and students expect updated content at all times, so there are a variety of completely new editorial processes that need to be established to make sure that the econtent is current and relevant (and no broken links). They would also want to know immediately when any update had been made, which means rigorously tracking changes and errata and setting up a communications process.  In addition, teachers would expect functionality such as receiving reports about access and use of the eworkbook and perhaps a way for them to go into a particular student’s eworkbook to provide feedback or help. That functionality also entails thinking about what part(s) of eworkbook activities can be “sent” or monitored.

It’s tempting to dismiss these problems and think that educational publishers are just being conservative in lagging behind just-in-time, just-for-you elearning. But they’re really just figuring out what their new jobs will be in a world where everyone with electricity and a device can access realms of information at any time. The short answer, then, is that educational publishers may want to embrace elearning, mlearning, and their new technologies, but that to do so entails nothing short of a superhuman effort coupled with a complete rethinking of what the business actually is in the wake of the embrace.

Pre Week 1

CCK11: Week Pre-1

Focusing and Foreword/Forward

To be successful in my own mind for this learning experience in the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge course, I must round back again and again to a central focus. For me, it might be what “instructional materials” will become in the new classrooms and schools that must result from the explosion of information that the internet provides. If teachers and schools are no longer the only sources of knowledge and information, then both the profession and the institution have to change—and so what happens to textbooks? My Day Job revolves around the production of these enormously expensive and, frankly, fairly ineffective materials.

Unless you’re in this business, you might not understand that the content of (preK-12) textbooks is created by teams of people rather than by the author whose name appears on the cover. This happens in what are known as “development houses,” that in the service of the publishing company that hired them, farm out the work to various freelancers—some of whom do not have any background in the subject matter but who are simply decent writers. The original publisher defines the parameters of, for example, the lessons. Those parameters include not only the content but also the metacontent: for instance, they must identify appropriate images or illustrations, link produced content to the learning goals and the state-mandated academic content, and identify and track such things as the proportion of people of color to white people in text and images. Increasingly, this development work is shipped to countries outside the United States because it’s cheaper.

Most K-12 teachers see textbooks as the necessary evil of their job. Textbooks do help them track their teaching in relation to state standards and indicators that they must prove they have covered (with the idea that “coverage” means students are able to pass a test on them). But as you can see from the explosion of teacher-created resources and lesson plans on the web, many teachers are unhappily aware that their textbooks are lacking.

In response, some publishers have jumped on the “e” bandwagon with electronic teacher editions and student  books that are interactive to greater or lesser degrees. My own Day Job (herein, DJ) recently launched an iPad app. Whee! But it’s not asking itself how “textbook publishing” will survive the ability of students and teachers to find their own content. At the same time, I’m not seeing teachers and parents asking tougher about the free open educational resources found on the internet. I suspect that they can be manipulated (maliciously or otherwise) just as some Wikipedia entries have been. Thus it seems to me that there’s some role in this for a curator, to use an expression I found in the PLENK2010 materials. That role is what textbooks should morph into, perhaps. However, I see little indication that the educational publishing industry is ready for such a role.